Monday, December 05, 2016
I Don't Have The Answers
I knew and wrote long before the election that Iowa City was a terrible vantage point. And the normal for Johnson County results bore out that The People's Republic was immune to Trumpism, an urban/academic island in a sea of red getting redder.
The long-time coordinated campaign model that's under attack in a hundred Smart Takes WORKED in Johnson County. We produced the numbers we always produce, the numbers that through 2012 were enough to meet the target for a statewide win. But in 2014 and again in 2016, while we held our own, the rest of the state slipped away.
If you're reading a state level political blog, you've already seen multiple takes and countless tweetstorms about The Democrats' Rural Problem.
One of the common complaints in those smart takes is the archetype of the staffer kid from the east coast dropped into a small Iowa town and expected to organize with no local ties. But that works in Iowa City because everyone here is either from someplace else or used to dealing with people from someplace else.
It's been 20 years since I lived, briefly, in a small town and ran a losing race in a rural legislative district. I learned a lot, and some of that knowledge still matters. But much of it is outdated enough that my knowledge is even more "outsider" than it was before.
I'm not convinced The Rural Problem is THE biggest problem nationally. I've seen, but can no longer remember to attribute, the argument that Hillary fell between the cracks. The Emerging Democratic Majority of non- White Straight Males that's been discussed for 15 years is growing, but not fast enough to overcome the Farm Belt-Rust Belt losses. This argument holds that we're on the right track and just need more time. But it assumes that the voting rights setbacks that almost certainly cost us Wisconsin and North Carolina won't get worse.
So maybe The Rural Problem isn't the biggest thing nationally, but it's the biggest problem here in Iowa. The bazillion dollar question is: How much of this is because of the decline of the non-coastal non-metropolitan economy? Yes, those things will be hard but they can be addressed. If that's the problem.
But how much of the Democratic problem with rural America is the cultural cluster: gender and race and immigration? How much is the abortion stuff and the gay stuff and the trans stuff and the gun stuff? Or, even worse, how much of it is European style ethno-nationalism?
After thinking long and hard my bet is more of the real Rural Problem is somewhere in there, rather than in the euphemistic excuse of the economy. I think it's somewhere on the less extreme edge of that cluster, in a generalized zone of fear and discomfort and confusion rather than as an emerging neo-fascism.
Assuming that's the real problem, it makes a solution harder. Democrats cannot turn our backs on the core of our own coalition to chase votes that we're currently losing. We can only work to win over hearts and minds and that's a long game.
And we have to do that with some issue realities that will make it harder for us.
One, the NRA's de facto position that mass shootings are simply the price we pay for a "free" society is no longer tolerable. And there's not a way to make it harder for people who shouldn't have guns to get guns without also making it harder for law abiding people to get guns.
And two, climate change isn't solvable without major lifestyle changes. I suspect if pressed, many climate change "deniers" will admit to the science but are uncomfortable and/or fearful of the lifestyle changes that the solutions will require. It's basic physics: it takes energy to heat stuff, cool stuff and move stuff. (It's not just isolated small towns that need to deal with this; it's long commute suburbs and refrigerated cities in the desert and tropics too.) There are certain realities of the information age, climate change era economy that are especially challenging for communities below a certain size. And that calls into question the long term viability of some sparsely populated areas.
A couple more random thoughts on the road forward:
We can stop worrying about Big Wall Street buying our party, because that money is gone forever. There will still be high-dollar donors, sure, but the financial industry is gone. We will of necessity be shifting our finance model.
And the worst thing we can do now is re-fight the primary. I took the 2000 nomination fight hard and I spend about three years going through the room at events evaluating people in those terms: "Bradley, Gore, Gore, Bradley, Bradley, Gore Gore Gore." It was emotionally toxic - bad politics and bad for me personally.
So the WORST thing Dems can do now is evaluate everything in terms of "Bernie, Hillary, Hillary, Bernie, Bernie," or define that nebulous word "progressive" in those terms either. We don't have the political strength to waste any of our energy on an in-fight. I personally don't have the strength for it either.